The Global Garden: Growing kumquat trees
I’ve never known what to do with my vigorous kumquat tree and the hundreds of olive-sized fruit that start ripening in late summer and continue until spring. The recent high winds brought down scores of fruit, and because I was without a plan, they lay rotting.
But during a recent visit to the 6-month-old Lincoln Heights Community Garden outside downtown L.A., I met Anna Thai, right, a Chinese Vietnamese restaurant owner who collects the fruit from a tree in her mother’s backyard, next door to the community garden. Thai installed an above-ground koi pond and planted a garden for her mom, Tam, so she can harvest bạc hà (giant elephant ear, a relative of taro) for soups and stir-fry, Chinese chives, pomegranate, guava and dragon fruit. But the kumquat tree, kept low and manageable, is the quiet star of the garden.
Kumquat, derived from the Cantonese word for “golden orange,” originated in China and is used throughout Asia. The Chinese preserve the fruit in a brine, allowing it to mature for decades, transforming the sweet rind and sour pulp into home medicine. A few spoonfuls of the brine, sometimes sweetened with honey, is said to sooth scratchy throats and quiet persistent coughs. A long-kept jar of shriveled kumquats can become a family heirloom, a gift to be passed along to a relative or a new bride. Vietnamese fans of the tree grow kumquats as bonsai and bring them out as Lunar New Year decorations.
Tam Thai, 86, left, washes and dries her harvest, then immerses the whole fruit in quart jars of salted water. (Four ounces of salt per pound of kumquats, dissolved in hot water and then covered and cooled before using.) Her oldest kumquats have been stored for three years and are starting to take on a deep brown hue. She keeps dozens of jars in a storage space under her back porch, but that’s not ideal.
“It's better to leave them in the sun,” daughter Anna says.
Seeded and sliced thin, kumquats add a distinctive sweet-sour punch to salads, soups, chutneys, jams and confections, either fresh or preserved. I tried a fast-turnaround variation of Moroccan preserved lemons, adding mint leaves and capers to split fruit, packed in salt.
Alan Smart -- animation director by day, Tiki-inspired home mixologist by night, right -- makes a kumquat martini by muddling together five mint leaves and two kumquats in a shaker with crushed ice, a tablespoon of sugar syrup and two ounces of vodka.
The kumquat tree in my yard, like Tam Thai’s, is a Nagami variety whose oval fruit is full of seeds. The Meiwa variety is rounder, sweeter and less seedy. The relatively new Nordmann seedless kumquat, an elongated tear-shaped fruit discovered by a Florida grower in 1965, is comparable to a Nagami in taste and rind, but without the hassle of seeding. All three can be found at nurseries.
Despite the extra work in the kitchen, in the garden the Nagami is nearly foolproof. It was planted on citrus root stock in the '80s and has thrived despite years of inattention and spotty watering. It produces buckets of fruit, no thanks to me. But in future flu seasons, I’ll be ready.
-- Jeff Spurrier
The Global Garden is our weekly series profiling plants from around the world: the eccentric, the edible and, for our multicultural city, the endearing reminders of home. Look for a new installment every Tuesday. For an easy way to follow all our garden coverage, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.
Photos: Ann Summa